How to organise a conference

How to organise a conference

In my last post on interdisciplinarity, I presented the difficulties that interdisciplinary researchers might face, including the lack of events that target this approach. However, I also highlighted how we could turn these apparent ‘barriers’ into opportunities for collaborative research, including the organisation of interdisciplinary events. In this post, I will present tips from my recent experience in planning and organising a postgraduate and interdisciplinary conference.

Delimiting the theme and scope of the conference

The first step in the planning process of a conference is similar to that of the research thesis: choosing a topic, considering a research question and delimiting the scope of the research. This turned out to be a more difficult step than I expected to be, so I recommend allowing a lot of time for this. In my case, I co-organised the conference with another colleague of mine and we went in a long back and forth process before we decided on a topic. We both wanted to organise an event related to a current ‘hot topic’ in our area that was also one we could benefit from. While we both are working on a similar research area, our theses are completely different, as are our research questions. Because of this, it was crucial to work on a literature review and find out: Which research can link both topics? Which questions are being discussed in the current literature of each of them? Which ones are shared among different disciplines? From the review, we ended up by finding:

-A theme: Dream experiences

-A research question: ‘What is the nature of dream experiences and what does make them different from hallucinatory and imaginative experiences?

-A scope: How these questions have been addressed from psychological and philosophical research.

Finding funding

Bunch of £20 notes

Bunch of £20 notes

Photo by Colin Watts on Unsplash

Once you have already come up with an idea of the theme for your conference, the second step is to look for sources of funding. These will vary from discipline to discipline so it’s a good idea to check with your supervisor or someone else at your department who has previous experience at organising conferences. They will be able to send you a list of the different funding bodies available for your discipline. In the case of Philosophy, our conference was funded by the Analysis Trust, the Scots Philosophical Association and the Mind Association.  Even if you still haven’t decided all the points about your conference, it’s important to look for funding far in advance because each funding body has specific and strict deadlines for their applications.

There is also specific funding available at the UofG for each of the Colleges for organising conferences and similar activities. For instance, the College of Arts opens three times a year their Collaborative Research Awards (CRA), with funds up to £1000 for activities that involve more than one researcher and considers collaboration among different institutions. Keep an eye out for a future post I will write for the College of Arts blog where I talk more about my conference-planning experience.

Keynote speakers

Your budget, goal and number of days for your conference will determine how many keynote speakers you will need. If your goal is to target the event to postgraduate students, you probably want to have space for more postgraduate presentations, leaving this to one or two keynote talks per day. In mine and my colleague's case, the aim was to promote inclusion and representation from younger academics so we only hold one keynote talk per day with four postgraduate talks each day.

The decision of who to invite as a keynote speaker will also depend on several factors such as budget, availability, academic representation and suitability. In any case, it is advisable to promote inclusivity in academia and, when you undertake the literature review, pay attention to which authors are cited, looking for those that maybe aren’t so ‘famous’ but are representative of that particular topic of research. Once you have decided who to invite, my advice is to contact them, regardless if you have already secured funding. It’s good to get in touch with researchers you are thinking of inviting, making them clear that the invitation and the event will depend on funding. With this, if you get funding, you will not only secure the attendance of some speakers that might need a lot of planning for attending (e.g. family commitments, other academic work…), but you will also create new links with other researchers. If in the end, the event can’t go ahead, you would have already established a new collaboration, and it will be easier for future planning.


Different plates with fruits on it

Different plates with fruits on it

Photo by dylan nolte on Unsplash

While you are in the process of sending out funding applications and you have already agreed on dates for holding the conference with your speakers, it’s advisable to start looking into the more logistical part.

Where? – This will depend on the number of attendees and your budget. Consider first if there’s a room at your Department to host this kind of event so you can save money on the room booking. The University also has rooms available free-of-charge, such as the TalkLab at the Main Library Building, and some others with only janitor-fees, like the James Bridie Memorial Library at the Glasgow University Union.

How? – Are you going to pay for all the meals? If you have enough budget, you might want to consider this option, booking via the Hospitality Services. Otherwise, you can also charge a small fee to attendees to cover the expenses of the same.

Who? – Who is going to be in charge of what? Are you going to need more people helping you on the day? Ask your colleagues for help and make sure you have enough people during the day. In the best of scenarios, at least one thing wouldn’t turn out as you were expecting, so it’s good to have the different tasks distributed so it’s easier to find last-minute solutions.

Call for Papers/Abstracts

Once you already got a resolution on your funding applications and you already have most of the details, it’s time to start publicising the conference. In our case, we also created a website for this, including a section on the UofG Philosophy website.

The literature review will turn out very useful in this case. For your Call of Abstracts/Papers, make sure you specify the theme of the conference. Be clear and concise about which topics the applications should be about. While you want to give enough freedom to applicants to send original pieces of work, you also want them to know which topics and research areas you are considering. This will save you time and rejections.

Leave enough time between the Call and the deadline, as well as between the dates for sending acceptances and the date of the conference. Giving enough time for applicants to prepare their applications and plan their attendance enhances inclusivity in academia.

Organising a conference for the first time isn’t an easy task and requires a lot of hard work and plenty of planning ahead. However, the results are very rewarding and it’s worth all the sweat and effort. The organisation of a conference won’t only count towards your CV but will also improve your networking and will provide you with new perspectives.

Cover photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

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